15 July 2004

Is Britney Spears the last Superstar?

The new approach to music might mean we've seen the end of the Britney level of global superstars. Music is changing fast (the RIAA's best efforts notwithstanding). We're seeing the end of traditional "Album-oriented Rock" at last; file sharing and legal downloads have both enabled tremendous user choice: you only have to buy the songs you want. That in turn has made the traditional role of the superstar, which is to sell millions of copies of a single easily manufactured physical item, much less important.

Now what matters most is to get a song out there people want to have in their e-music collection, and the number of ways to do that has multiplied. American Idol epitomizes the way in which the once-formidable lock the major labels held on introducing new talent has been attacked by other media. And downloading, especially in the form of iTunes, is its own grass-roots music promotional vehicle; since everyone at my company has switched to pervasive use of the program, the last three new albums I've purchased are music I discovered through other people's iTunes shares.

All of this makes me wonder if we've seen the last of Michael and Britney. It's not that there won't still be stars, for the same reasons there are event movies: we all need particularly popular items to talk about around the water cooler with people we know. But the particular heights of pop stardom scaled by the young Spears, Jackson, or Springsteen may not be needed anymore by the industry.

Before, you needed someone to create excitement and trips to the record store; someone whose multimillion-dollar album production and promotion costs could be trivially offset by the first five million copies sold. Now, the manufacturing, distribution, and inventory issues are gone (or at least, managed by Apple and Real); while promotion is still an issue, it may be more economically productive to have a larger stable of moderate-performing artists who energetically self-promote and use word of mouth, rather than TV commercials, to reach their audience.

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